A protracted conflict works in Russia’s favour. But there is a clear path to bringing it to an early end.
7 February 2024
Nobody wanted a long war in Ukraine. Russia didn’t plan for it, and the West wasn’t prepared for it.
Ukraine and its Western partners had dared to hope that the successes of autumn 2022 might cause Russia’s army to implode. There was similar vain hope that the late Yevgeny Prigozhin’s coup of June 2023 would succeed – or at least weaken the Kremlin’s grip on its war. These hopes proved naïve.
Russia, meanwhile, expected a short victorious war of weeks if not days, one that would barely be felt by its population, except to glory in the defeat of Zelenskyy and his ‘Nazi regime’. This belief also proved delusional. But with neither side achieving satisfaction, the alternative – the long war (‘forever war’, say some) grows more likely, and undoubtedly favours the invader.
For Ukraine, the long war is nothing short of disastrous. Even if it were willing to, the country cannot recruit anything like the numbers Russia can press into service. It also places greater value on human life than its opponent, meaning it inevitably suffers more from a protracted war of attrition.
Russia, by contrast, has settled into what Natalie Sabanadze has blackly called its ‘zone of comfort’. To Moscow, the war is manageable, the president and the elite are secure, and most crucially of all, Western resolve seems brittle.
The EU’s hard-fought-for €50 billion funding package has passed on the second attempt, but future funding will surely face similar challenges. Meanwhile vital military aid from the US is still held hostage in Congress.
Whatever the future question marks over Western support, discussions held at Chatham House last week indicated that alternative scenarios to a long war would all result in a situation requiring increased defence spending by the West and consistent, committed support for Ukraine.
Ukraine’s vision and cautious allies
Ukraine can still chalk up important victories, even if they pass largely unnoticed in the West: the reopening of the Black Sea to commerce and the ongoing destruction of Russia’s navy are major successes, overshadowed by some commentators’ fixation on a static front line on land.
There is cause for concern in the Ukrainian army’s position: Russia currently has a 5:1 firepower advantage, as its shell production and acquisition has ramped up while Western supply has struggled. Even if the West steps up production and delivery, Ukraine is going to remain at a disadvantage – and on the defensive – all year at minimum.
This could have been avoided, if Western policy since Russia’s full-scale invasion had been to help Ukraine win the war, as opposed to merely survive. Those governments now seem to be waking up to the threat of a Russian victory, but too late to alter the situation this year.
Kyiv is nonetheless rethinking its own war strategy, with a new emphasis on improved technology and updated command and control. It may be bitter at the slow speed of delivery and lack of resolve of its partners, but this has not yet translated into defeatism.
Some analysts hold that Russia needs its wars: they offer a specific kind of legitimacy and circus now there is less bread. The last three centuries certainly offer compelling evidence for this.
But Russia also possesses a unique resilience, also witnessed over hundreds of years. In its contemporary form, Russia is quite able to mobilize society for a drawn-out war and operate while under siege by sanctions (especially given all the loopholes in their implementation).
Defence spending is over 10 per cent of GDP and 40 per cent of its budget, in contrast to the West – and it can increase that figure faster than its enemies.
Some of the population at large may not be enthusiastic about the war – and even less so about being called up – but there is little doubt they would prefer to win it now that they’re in it. So Ukraine will also now try to cut deeper: strikes inside Russia at airports and oil refineries are intended to have a psychological impact and lead to reduced exports.
Against this worrying background, last week Chatham House convened a discussion for experts and policymakers, under the Rule, examining scenarios for how the war might end. Despite the wide range of views deliberately included around the table, almost no one thought a viable negotiated end to the war was possible while Vladimir Putin remains in power. Russia won’t give up, go away or compromise on territory it has taken – and wants more, as indicated by the ‘treaties’ of December 2021 and Putin’s speeches. And while unity among Russia-watchers will forever remain elusive, most concluded that a clear Ukrainian victory was the only possible outcome that would reduce, rather than increase, the wider Russian threat to Europe.
A strong case was made for ‘heading-off-at-the-pass’ planning by Ukraine’s allies – that is, preparing for sub-optimal contingencies including Russian escalation, or an enforced peace that punishes Ukraine.
However, the steps necessary for this kind of planning are essentially the same as those needed to help ensure Ukrainian victory: increasing defence spending, better preparing armed forces and societies for conflict, improving the ability to repel non-kinetic attacks, and eliminating ‘grey zones’ in Eastern Europe – so that there is no longer any doubt that internationally recognized sovereign states do not exist within an outmoded sphere of influence.
Making this war futile and costly for the Kremlin might change the calculus in parts of the Russian elite, thus creating fissures in the system.
But Ukraine and its allies still find themselves in an almost impossible situation, due to earlier Western neglect (a policy choice both at the beginning of this war and since 2014).
A simmering war, with or without a ceasefire may seem to many to be the best option, but it crystalizes Russian gains and would allow it to rearm, without the certainty that the West would stay the course and match it.
It would also waste the unique opportunity being created by Ukraine to achieve a European security paradigm where borders and sovereignty are respected.
But the truth is that Russia is still, after two years of full-scale war, a far more committed player than the West. This fact should lead to an operational policy conclusion: that this war must not be long and must be won by Ukraine.
This logic is not yet accepted widely enough among policymakers to be acted upon. But the slower the West is to shift its defensive posture, the less likely it is that Ukraine will prevail, or that the rules-based international order and Western values, such as they are, will survive.
James Nixey leads the Russia-Eurasia programme, and his principal expertise concerns the relationships between Russia and the other post-Soviet states. He has published papers and articles in books and journals, and commented extensively in the national and global media. He has also organised hundreds of private expert roundtables on Russian and Eurasian affairs while at Chatham House. Publications include The Long Goodbye: Waning Russian Influence in The South Caucasus and Central Asia, ‘Russia’s Geopolitical Compass: Losing Direction’ in, Putin Again: Implications for Russia and the West, and ‘The South Caucasus: Drama on Three Stages’ in A Question of Leadership: America’s Role in a Changed World. As the principal fundraiser for the Russia-Eurasia programme, he has raised money for projects from dozens of corporate sector companies, governments and grant-giving institutions. James Nixey holds degrees in modern languages and international relations and has previous experience in journalism (as a reporter in Moscow in the late 1990s) and the banking sector, for Goldman Sachs.